« February 2006 | Main | April 2006 »

March 18, 2006

Photos from the Lost City trek

here are some of my favorite photos from the lost city trek. the ones at the end featuring the cocaine factory were taken by my friend Lee.

The gringo jeep.

this is what the trail looked like.


tiny epiphite


coca plant.

kogi village.

Cutter ants. they cut and carry these leaves, then bury them undergound to grow fungus, which they eat. good old nature.

Ewan from scotland carrying our mascot dog "esparky 2" over a river.

nicolas the cook, and the giant amount of stuff he carried.

indigenous kids of the Kogi tribe.

a frog that carries it's young on it's own back.

my good friend Lee from England, and Esparky 2 our mascot dog.

the stairway to the lost city. it rises right out of the riverbed.

the main staircase.

clouds over the mountains. view from the lost city.

the stream that runs through the lost city. known as quebrapatas.

mossy terraces and stone staircases.

main ceremonial terraces in the lost city.

clouds over the mountains.

metates (grinding stones). lost city.

kogi, the decendents of the lost city culture.

terraces and palmtrees in the lost city.

frog rock.

terraces and mountains.

mossy terraces.

me swinging from vines in the lost city. my life rules.

kogi, a really cool japanese guy. he loved balancing rocks on top of boulders in the middle of the river.

rocks in the river.

rocks balanced in the river.

rocks balanced in the river.

Edwin, a guide and my friend, standing in a guaqua, a grave that has been robbed of it's contents.

evidence along the trail of precolombian civilization.

they cut down the jungle and burn the countryside in order to make pastures for cattle.

me jumping into a swimming hole.

precolombian beads. the Tayrona culture used them as offerings to the gods to maintain natural equilibrium.

borrachera, a hallucinogenic flower. don't mess with it.

the trail back to civilization.

me swimming in rivers.

one of the optional features of the tour is a visit to a functioning cocaine factory. ingredients used in the process include: gasoline, hydrochloric acid, other nasty stuff. cocaine is so lame, for so many reasons.
Note: these photos were taken by my friend, Lee.

check out the cocaine chemist. he looks like a gnome.

mixing coca leaves with gas.

chemicals from the factory.

hope you enjoyed the photos.

the hike was really good. now i'm back in Santa Marta, finishing up my research. i think i'll be leaving on wednesday or thursday. Lee needs to head south, so we're gonna check out San Gil, near Bucaramanga, on the way to Bogota. San Gil is said to have really good rafting. after that, i'm going back to Bogota to finish up research i need to do there. i arrive home 3 weeks from today.

oh, i wrote this. it was on my blog earlier, but i spiced it up a little, correct punctuation, capitalizing words, that sort of jazz.

Posted by bendan at 11:15 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 16, 2006

Back from the mountains

got back the day before yesterday, ended up staying an extra day up there in the sierra nevada de santa marta. it was excellent, really cool to do the hike again. i took tons of photos, which i'm still sorting through, but you can see them at my flickr site. other then that, just hanging out with the crew from the hike, and working on my project. i might go to venezuela to learn how to skydive. we'll see.

Posted by bendan at 03:21 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 07, 2006

This is Why I Travel (Medellin Story)

In Santa Marta, leaving for the Lost City hike tomorrow, looking forward to interviewing a lot of old ex-graverobbers for my writing project, which is the reason i came back down here in the forst place. i'm all recovered from Carnivales in Barranquilla, and tanned up from leisure on the beaches of Taganga.
when i get back i'll write about the Hike, until then check out something i've been working on since i was in Medellin.

This is Why I Travel
(A Medellin Story)

the day began in the customary lazy traveller fashion, meaning that I awoke from languid slumber sometime before noon. After fixing myself two perfectly ripe avocado, tomato and red onion sandwiches, with fresh orange juice, i checked my email and the news. No emails, and the news was full of the dire consequences resulting from the faulty decisions of world leaders, so i closed that window and instead read my favorite internet comics, including a new Cat and Girl. My friends arose later, slowly, and gentle goading got them out of bed and ready to head to the bus station.

En route on the metro we found ourselves talking to a group of schoolboys. They, like most Colombians, were fascinated to talk to us. the usual information was discussed, where we were from, where we had been in Colombia, what was our destination, and why did i speak such good Spanish? It was great fun, we asked them about themselves, and of course i encouraged them to speak some english to me. No matter what they said, i told them that they spoke very good english, something i learned long ago on the road to spanish fluency, that any encouragement is golden. When we disembarked at Estacion Caribe, they waved at us out the window.
"Good old Colombia." I told my friends.

At the ticket counter, i initiated our collective bargaining for the bus tickets we were planning to purchase, for our departure the following evening. Colombia is the only country i've been in where you can haggle for the price of bus tickets, and trying to get a deal on 8 tickets proved to be good fun. Before long i'd managed to convince the two rival bus companies that "the other company" was offering to illegally undercut the price, to the point where they were glaring at each other across the bus terminal and deciding whether to call their supervisors. soon i had reservations for the 8 of us with one of the companies, at 10,000 pesos below the regular price. We planned to return an hour before departure, in the hopes of striking an even better deal with the driver himself. I thanked the lady who had helped me, and she gave me that familiar begrudged smile, a sure sign that i was a worthy opponent and not just some pushover gringo.

The majority of our group left, heading back to the hostel to chill out, do laundry, and mostly to watch Champion's League Football. I, had other plans however, and together with my friends Lee from the Midlands of England and Kristi from B.C., Canada, I continued north on the Metro. 2 stops down the line, at Acevedo, we hopped off the train, and boarded the much talked about Metrocable.

Situated between two cordilleras of the Andes mountain range, which runs north-south the whole of the length of Colombia, all of Medellin´s commercial and industrial areas lie in the bottom of the valley. The residential neighborhoods of the wealthy lie down there as well, and as is the case in many Latin American cities, the economic status of the residents is illustrated by their proximity to the valley floor. Inversely, the poorer you are, the higher up you live on the mountain, and the farther you live from the heart of the city.


Bearing this in mind, The Metrocable is an amazing investment by the city of Medellin. The Metrocable is a tram system, similar to those seen in ski resorts. The closed gondolas have space for 6 people seated and 2 standing. They depart directly from the Metro line, and climb nearly 3 quarters of the way up a mountain, stopping at 3 different stations along the way. this means that instead of having to take an hour long, winding, twisting bus ride down through the haphazard barrios that completely cover the steep incline, the residents can instead hop on the Metrocable, and within 15 minutes have access to the Metro line and the rest of the city.


In the gondola, we asked a nice lady about the Metrocable. She told us that it had been operating for 2 years, and that she used it nearly every day. Though we had no trouble getting on, she assured us that this was only because it was in the early afternoon, and that during the peak hours, there were long lines to ride. She added that the city was planning to extend it even further up, to the top of the mountain, which would give service to several other neighborhoods, as well as provide easy access to a hard to reach national park. Before she hopped off at the first stop, she encouraged us to take a paseo around the top, in the barrio Santo Domingo.

The rest of the ride we spent gawking out the windows at the magnificent view. Peering back across the valley to the mountain on the other side, i tried to spy the peak where we had went paragliding the day before. I took in the tall buildings in the center of the city, and the warehouses, factories and residential districts blooming out around them. then i looked straight down from the car, where we could see the red tile roofs so typical here in the department of Antioquia. People bustled to and fro in the streets below us, and there were signs of construction and development, including a road being built beneath the route of the cable car, weaving between the giant support poles.



Soon we reached the top. The door to the gondola swung open at the 3rd and last station, Santo Domingo. We stepped out, and walked down the stairs and into the barrio. Directly across from the station were tiendas selling milk, produce and meat, and the buildings were brightly painted beneath the rust red color of the roofs. We turned left and began walking up a hill, dodging a truck and then a cab as they passed us on the narrow street.

Pausing to let my eyes take it all in, i was struck suddenly by how out of place we must have appeared, three gringos in shorts and sandals, skin pale and faces burnt from the hot Colombian sun. Indeed, people were beginning to look at us, and i had that distinctly uncomfortable sensation of being somewhere i didn't belong.

Just then, 4 ladies of varying ages all wearing orange t-shirts walked by. They glanced at us and whispered something, and then giggled. When this happens i generally try and strike up a conversation, just to show that not all North Americans are monolingual, and to let them know that i am interested in their country. As usual, they were surprised that we spoke spanish, and informed us that they were from a neighborhood 2 tram stops down, and that they were up here conducting a census about the heads of households, trying to determine what services were needed.

We asked what would be a good direction to take a walk, and one of the ladies turned to me, looking quite concerned. She quickly said that this wasn't a safe neighborhood at all, and that we would be wise to return to the tram and head back down. She asked us where we were staying, and when we told her the name of our metro stop, Poblado, she suggested that we return to near there and take a walk through one of the rich neighborhoods for a look at the parks and "nice houses." I for one had already spent a bit of time in that part of the city, and i'd found it sterile, boring, and reminiscent of subdivisions and suburbs back home, albeit with armed security guards on every corner. when we told her that we'd already been through there, she shrugged her shoulders, and entreated us to walk only around the block and then head back up to the tram.

After bidding them farewell and letting the ladies walk away, i conferred with my friends. we all agreed that while we felt a bit out of place, that none of had felt in danger, except when she told us that we should feel that way. It was 3 in the afternoon, and i'd had no feeling that i was in imminent danger of being robbed or knifed. Still, we continued in the direction she had suggested, because from the tram we had seen an open space with a good lookout over the city.

As we walked into what turned out to be a concrete park, several boys ranging in ages from 8 to 13 approached us, seeming extremely curious. They exuded a good, healthy youthfulness, even the few half-scruffy looking ones among them, and quickly they began asking us questions about ourselves. Kristi stopped to buy them some fried potato chips from a street vender, and we all sat down on some benches, taking in the hazy view of the city stretched out below us. Soon more of their friends showed up, some riding beat up bmx's and mountain bikes.


Before long we were sitting on benches at the lookout, happily engaged in talking to all of them. First they asked us the usual, about where we were from, what jobs we had back in our countries, why we were here, what did we think of Colombia, ect... We answered their questions and asked them questions about themselves. It was great to hear their answers, given one by one as they all stared smiling at me with young eyes. Probably 3/4ths of them went to school in a building located behind the park, most of them liked studying, they were avid fans of reggaeton music above all else, and they loved riding bikes as much as we did. The boys who didn't go to school stated that they didn't like it and that they thought it a waste of time. Of course i countered that they should go, that it was important, knowing all the while that my suggestions were most likely futile.

I spotted a man a few meters away listening in, and i invited him over. Happy to talk about his barrio, he filled me in on the recent history. He said that as few as 4 years ago this part of the city had been poisoned by gangs, violence and the lack of access to work. He said that we wouldn't have been safe at all up here back then. The Metrocable had made all the difference though, and he proudly pointed out 2 nearby soccer pitches, and where the Alcaldia planned to put in a library, a clinica, and possibly a university. Though i didn't ask what his line of work was, he alluded that it was in the factories down near the city center, and that the oldest of his 3 children, a son who know lived independently, worked down there as well.

Tentatively i asked him what he thought about Uribe, the current President of Colombia. I say tentatively because you can't be sure whether it's something a local will be amenable to, discussing the successes and shortcomings of their political leaders and their governments. in my experience though, it has been the best way to learn the actual situation, from the perspectives of the real populace, and not just from the newspapers and politicians. my enquiries have garnered all manner of responses, from informed outpourings to curt dismissals. a poor street vendor in a small mountain town in Antioquia once recounted to me in eloquent detail how both of her sons were drafted, one into the military and the other into the guerilla, so that they would potentially have to fight against each other. She was so incensed with frustration that it nearly brought her to tears, and she avowed that to her, all of the politicians, the paramilitaries and the guerillas were making it nearly impossible for the country people, the campesinos, to live their even simple lives. And many a taxi driver, has vented to me about ¨los malditos politicos," those damned politicians, as he roared honking through city streets.

The man in the park turned out to be happy to talk. He said that while Uribe isn't perfect, that the lessening of violence rooted in the struggle of the guerillas, the paramilitaries and the narcotraficos had been an achievement worthy of recognition. He said that more importantly, the government of Medellin deserved praise. He pointed to the Metrocable, and said that for this, the city government was humanitarian. I've never heard a politician or a government described as humanitarian.


More boys would cycle in, ask us the same initial questions about ourselves, and then we'd talk about more profound things. i asked how it was to live up here, what their parents did for work, and where they would like to travel. A young boy asked us if we were rich, and i assured them that no we weren't, that we'd had to work hard and save money for a long time for these trips. They looked impressed, and i felt it necessary to quickly admit that we were very lucky to be from places where our money was worth so much that we were able to visit other countries. When i rattled off the list of spanish speaking countries i'd been to, they looked amazed, and i felt proud, and as i said, very, very lucky. They were fascinated with how the three of us had met, and i explained the idea of a youth hostel, as a place to meet other people who are traveling. they asked whether we had trouble understanding each other's English, and i likened it to when they speak to someone from Argentina or Mexico, that while it's the same language, the accent and some of the vocabulary is different.


After a bit they would wander off and new ones would show up to meet us. Some of these new kids were older, teenagers just returning for the day after working down in the city. These boys seemed more confident, and they questioned me about rap and hiphop music, about what kind of car i had (they were surprised when i told them that i didn't have a car, and that i didn't want one), and of course about girls. When i told them what my last job had entailed, that of being a bicycle courier and about how it was dangerous, they looked at me with respect. One of these boys, Arturo his name was, kept listing all the good things about Medellin and Colombia. He spoke of the good weather, the beauty of Antioquia, and of course his allegiance to El Nacional, the Medellin football (soccer) team, which he assured me was the best in the nation. His friends joked that he was the Alcalde (mayor) of the neighborhood, and we all laughed.


I tried to teach some of the younger boys to juggle, which descended for most into throwing rocks at a sign, and we took turns trying to walk on our hands. they showed off their bmx tricks in the small skateboarding bowl cast in concrete in the park, and we clapped and showed that we were impressed. Kristi was led off by a little girl and soon was standing on the other side of the square, talking to a group of mothers. A short man came up to us and began speaking with Lee in halting yet understandable english, and all the boys looked impressed by him. As we moved deeper into the afternoon, the park and the neighborhood seemed to echo more with all the people moving about, chatting to each other on benches or in front of houses, running errands, stopping at first to look strangely at us but quickly to come up and introduce themselves.


Standing up there in that park overlooking the city, I was reminded that this is one of the best results of travel. talking to kids and adults from a poor neighborhood who are working and building and striving for themselves, I felt fortunate that they were so keen to open up to me, and thrilled to get to really learn about their lives. When spoken it seems natural, the wonder of meeting people and seeing new places, but up there in that barrio, i found myself awestruck anew by how this experience changes me, how it makes me want to work harder towards making the world a better place, and of how it makes me want to recount it and share it with everyone, with my friends, my family, with strangers.

Before i left, the older boys asked me a difficult question. they wanted to know why Colombia and it's people have such a bad reputation in my country. I've tried to field that one before, and i usually end up talking about all the bad press and propaganda, the fear engendered from the history of drug trafficking and kidnappings. I launched into this monologue, nearly memorized after having spoken it countless times, but halfway through, i heard myself sounding apologetic, sounding assured when i wasn't sure of anything, so i stopped. i told them that i didn't know why their country has such mala fama, that the world is complicated and bad at times, and that they don't deserve to have anyone be afraid of them simply because of where they come from. They nodded to me, and i couldn't tell, but i hope that what i said made some of them feel better.

It was time to bid everyone farewell. I must have shaken 30 hands, children and adults, boys and girls, telling all of them mucho gusto conocerte (very nice to meet you), and finally we pulled ourselves away. As we walked back to the Metrocable and then hopped on board, my friends and i agreed that it had been one of the best afternoons of our respective trips. As the cable lowered us down to the regular Metro, we watched the neighborhoods slide past below us, and i found myself sitting there, quietly, content.

Posted by bendan at 11:00 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 04, 2006

Hot Santa Marta, Colombia

so i´m in some crappy internet cafe in Santa Marta, trying to figure out why no one in this town will let me connect my laptop. i´ve been to tons of internet cafe´s, and explained that i will pay the same amount of money, but to no avail. therefore, the 2 entries i already have written with pictures ready to add are sitting on my laptop, wishing they could be set free into the wild wilderness of the internet. and i´m here, reading news, remembering how much IE completely sucks.
sorry this is boring. i´m doing well still, on the coast, getting suntanned, interviewing old graverobbers.
and if i have enough money on this trip, i might learn how to fly. for reals.

Posted by bendan at 10:11 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack